Thursday, February 5, 2015

Thursday, February 05, 2015 - No comments

Keeping Tabs on the Joneses

One of the toughest parts of trying to write about my experiences in Turkey is capturing dialogue.  When I do interviews for my book, it's simple enough because there's a voice recorder sitting right there on the table, and "all I have to do" is type it up later.  But trying to recall those "slice of life" bits and stories people share over çay is another animal altogether.

It's hard enough to remember everything a person said during a given conversation (even if I'm furiously scribbling things in my notebook during every bathroom break), but doing it in my second language adds a whole 'nother dimension of tricksy.  There are often words I don't know, or people have crazy accents I can't always understand, so I'll miss something and then later realize I have a gap in the flow of how one bit of conversation connects to the next.  

And then there's the whole matter of faithfully reproducing what I remember.  How do I translate, "Tövbe estağfurullah?"** when there's nothing like it in English?  How much license can I take with "dynamic equivalent" when quoting someone, especially if I didn't precisely catch all the words in the sentence, but knew the meaning of what they said?  And how in the world do I put into words what Culture Shock Turkey calls "the gesture in which a person moves their hand in circles in the air to emphasize the countless occasions on which whatever is being talked about has done?"  Cumbersome, to say the least.

In an effort to improve my recall skills in this area, I've taken to  attempting to write up conversations or whole visits.  It's a great way to flex my literary muscles and, if nothing else, will make for a nice little collection of anecdotes and everyday details that will surely come in handy somewhere down the line.

That said, here's my best representation of a visit to my next-door neighbours' house last week. It's not super polished or super fascinating, but it does give a pretty accurate picture of what your average "stop in for tea" looks like around here.


**Tövbe estağfurullah is a phrase said by particularly polite or religious people when someone else cusses or says something rude or inappropriate.  It basically carries a "may God forgive you for that indiscretion" feel to it, though it seems to have more to do with the speaker's desire to be untarnished by the guilt of what the other person said than with any desire for God to actually forgive the transgressor.


We call them The Hoca and The Hoca’s Wife.  He’s not actually a religious teacher, as the nickname implies, but his faithful mosque attendance coupled with my roommate’s near inability to learn people’s names on the first go earned them their titles when we first moved into the house across from theirs.  And they stuck.  

Too many hours in front of our computer screens and a bout of rainy afternoon restlessness prompted us to take them up on the previous day’s offer to “pop over for tea sometime.”  

I rang the buzzer and the shrill chirp of an electronic bird echoed from inside the house.  (I’ve always been curious to know who decided that a bird call was a good idea for a nation-full of doorbells.  Whenever ours sticks, I fantasize about wringing their neck.)  

Thirty seconds passed with no answer.  

“Well, points for trying,” said my roommate.

“Maybe she’s upstairs,” I said.  “Let’s give it a sec.”

Just as we were about to head back down the steps, the lock click, click, clicked and a bleary-eyed Hoca’s wife greeted us, tugging her headscarf into place.  

“Oh, Teyze, we woke you up!  We can come back another time....”

“No, no, come in.  Please.”  

“Are you sure?” 

“Yes, yes.  I wasn’t really sleeping,” she continued as we took off our shoes and entered their dark foyer, depositing a kiss on each weathered cheek as we passed.  “I was reading the Qu’ran and I just...”

“Closed your eyes for a second?” I offered.

She smiled sheepishly.  “It happens.”  She motioned for us to head into the living room.  “Hacı just woke up, too.  He’s heading to the mosque.”  (“Hacı” means “someone who’s been on the pilgrimage to Mecca.  She calls him that instead of using his name.  There’s a lot of that going around.)  The Hoca was just putting on his coat when we entered the salon.  After the appropriate greetings, he excused himself and headed off for afternoon prayers.  

One couch was folded out, sheets strewn on top of it, and a pile of pillows filled half of the other one.  We perched on the empty portion and lay our coats on top of the pillows.  An electric heater in the middle of the room made for a toasty contrast to the drippy weather outside.  A huge Qu’ran with golden-edged pages lay open on the coffee table.  The TV volume was all the way up, a program about women being reunited with their mothers after years of not speaking.  Their voices competed with the sound of drilling and hammering coming from the house next door.

Having sent The Hoca off, Hoca’s Wife began to bustle around the salon, hanging our coats on the back of the dining room chairs, folding up the couch and arranging the coffee table in front of us.  She turned the TV volume down.

“I just washed their insides yesterday,” she said picking up the stack of pillows.  “I had them by the heater so the wool would dry.  Had to go rescue the laundry from the line when the rain started.  It didn’t get too wet, I don’t think.”  She lowered herself into the armchair beside me.  “Things dry so much faster with a woodstove.  But we’re old and that’s a lot of work now, so we have this.”  She gestured at the space heater, glowing orange a few feet away.  “When we were young, though, all we had was a woodstove.  No electricity.  Electricity didn’t even come until maybe 1990, after the kids were born.”

“The nineties,” we both exclaimed.  “That late?”

“Well, the cities had it long before that.  But not villages or places in the mountains.  No running water, either - just the town fountain where everyone filled their bottles.  We’d work outside in the field in the daytime and then come in and light oil lamps and make carpets at night.  To pass the time.  It was fine for our fingers to work in the dark, but we couldn’t really see the designs.”  She chuckled.  “And now we can’t really see at all!”

“I’m still so amazed that you made carpets,” I said.  “I can’t even knit!”  She shrugged.  “How many do you think you’ve made in your life?”

“Oh-oh-OH!”  She wobbled her head from side to side, repeatedly lifting her palm in the “you have no idea!” gesture.  “Lots....lots.  After I got married, maybe only ten.  Who has time?  But when I was a girl, lots.  Isparta carpets, the ones we made.  If you were really good, you could make one in fifteen days.  A full one.  I wasn’t that fast.”

The sound of drilling next door intensified.  “So, we have new neighbours?” my roommate observed with a raise of her eyebrows.  “Didn’t waste any time.  Two weeks since they bought the place and already they’ve knocked out all the walls.  And the’re even closer to it than we are.”

“At least the workmen are nice enough to wait until a decent hour to start banging.  Unlike someone else around here.”  She jerked a thumb at the wall they share with the neighbours behind them.  “Seven-thirty he starts hammering. Always building something.  And those chickens....”

“I saw the new coop,” I said with a scrunch of my nose.  

“At least he put a fence up, so they don’t run around like the other ones.  But, oh, they smell!  I can’t even open this window anymore.  I asked him to move it around to the other side....not that it’ll make much of a difference.”

“Wait til summer,” my roommate laughed.  “Let it get hot and they won’t be able to stand the smell.  Maybe they’ll realize then that this is a complex and not a farm!”

“Shameful, it is.  Like we’re in the village.”  Hoca’s wife slowly rose from her seat.  “Tea or Nescafe?  I’ve already put the water on.”

We glanced at each other.  “Uh, I’d love coffee,”  I said.  The time it takes for tea to brew always makes for a longer visit, and we had dinner plans.”

“You?”  She looked at my roommate.

“Sure, Nescafe is good.  Whichever’s easier.”

“I’ll go get the kettle.”  She shuffled around the side of the coffee table.  “You can snack on these while you wait.”  She pulled out a juice bottle full of roasted chickpeas.  “Hacı likes the white ones and I like the yellow ones, so we buy both and put them in here.”

“Good thing you married each other, then,” I said.  “No one steals the ones the other person wants!”

“Is there a show you’re following?”  She asked, picking up the TV remote on her way out of the room.  We both shrugged.  “You can change it to whatever you want.”  She flipped to ATV where a show was just starting.  

“Hey, isn’t that ‘Yahşi Cazibe’?”  I pointed at the TV.  

“No, it’s the wrong characters,” my roommate said.  “Same guy, but see, the blond chick is different.”

“Yeah, but the song’s the same, listen.  And there’s Cazibe and the amoeba guy...and Gaffur!”

“But it finished like a year ago.”

I shrugged.  The episode got going, and we watched while Hoca’s wife got the coffee.  Sure enough, it was the same show about the Azeri girl and the Turkish guy who had a fake marriage so she could get a visa and then fell in love.  “Maybe they started it over....with different people?  Look, Simge’s missing.”

“Aw, it’d be no fun without her.  ‘I’m ruined, I’m ruined!’  And her ridiculous outfits...  I guess they remade the series from the beginning but with some new people.  Huh.”


Amused, we watched Kemal carefully arranging fake wedding photos around the house so the neighbours would think they were married and then hiding them - and Cazibe - in the closet when his girlfriend - the Simge-replacement - showed up.  

On a commercial, I glanced around the room.  “Were there always three of those?”

My roommate followed my gaze.  “The Mecca pictures?  Those two are new, I think.”  A pair of nearly identical photos of pilgrims in white robes circling the kaaba hung on either side of the flatscreen TV.  “But that big one’s always been there.  I remember cuz she was very intent on having it in the background when I took those pictures of her and the girls that summer.  Amelia got a kick out of showing everyone that one.”

The door creaked open and Hoca’s Wife entered carrying a tray of mugs, a jar of Nescafe and a pot of hot water.  She looked winded.

“Here, let us help you with that!”  We both jumped up.  

“Why don’t you just fix them here at the table?” she said.  “I don’t know how you like them.  It’s rude of me, but....”

“No, no,” I assured here.  “We’re not strangers.”

“How many scoops?” my roommate asked me, teaspoon poised over the Nescafe jar.  

“I don’t know, I never make it except for 3-in-1s.  Just do it how you normally do yours.”

I took in the conspicuous lack of milk or sugar on the tray.  As if reading my mind, Hoca’s Wife said, “We don’t have any milk in the house since neither of us use it.”

“At all?” I asked.  

“Well, they said on TV that the box stuff is bad for you, and then that milkman never seemed to come at the right time.  We just got used to it.”

I snuck a sideways glance at my roommate and we shared a helpless look.  “Ah, sugar’s there on the coffee table,” I said.  We both dumped in a fair share and settled back onto the couch.

“I got that mug in Germany.”  She motioned towards the one in my hand, ringed with pink flowers.  “It was a set of six.  That’s the only one left.”

“Have you heard anything about what these guys are planning?”  I asked, inclining my head to the house under construction.  

“A whole family, I heard.”  She sat up straighter, looking authoritative.  “The mother is going to live upstairs.  We’ll see if the son brings a wife home, then they’ll probably live downstairs, if the wife will have it.  Or maybe he’ll move out.  They tried to make me live with my mother-in-law, but I wouldn’t have it.”

“Seems silly to use up the whole terrace making extra rooms,” I said.  “And there are like no windows.  The one facing us is super tiny.”

“They should’ve asked us,” my roommate agreed, no doubt thinking about her never-sees-the-sun north-facing bedroom.  “Anyone in here can tell you that side gets all the mold.”

“Yeah, especially if they’re putting the bathroom on that side,” I went on.  “Did you see they had “shower” painted on the wall in that back corner?  It’ll get all steamy in there and then mold for sure.  Too bad...”

I blew on my Nescafe and took a sip.  Not as terrible as I’d expected.  

“It’s kinda like watching a TV show,” my roommate chuckled.  “Watching their progress every day, wondering what they’ll do next.  

“I peek out my window and watch them sometimes,” Hoca’s wife confessed.  “Just to see what they’re knocking down now.  I can’t open the windows for all that dust.”  She sniffed in disgust.  “And I try to get all my outside work done when they’re not around.  All those men, watching me hang my laundry.  The other day I was out trimming the grapevine and I heard one of them say, ‘Look, the old lady knows how to trim the vine!‘  Of course I know how to trim a vine.  Not like their wives who sit inside all day watching TV.”

“You cut back your grapevine?” my roommate asked.  “Isn’t it too early?”

“No, not really.  You do it in February, and it’s practically February.  My friend in town said she was doing hers, so I decided it wasn’t too soon and I did mine.  You can do yours anytime now.” 

“Okay.  I always wait til you do yours before I do mine anyway.”  My roommate sighed.  “I hope they’re good neighbours and not yellers.  And I hope they do all their talking and sitting and grilling on the other side of the house so we can all still have our spots.”

Hoca’s wife pointed in the general direction of our house.  “Like you, always sitting outside and reading on your balcony when it’s nice.  You couldn’t sit out there if there were always men in the front yard.  Gül Abla and her husband were only ever in that house a few weeks every summer so it didn’t really matter.”

I hadn’t thought of that.  “True.  I guess then it’s good they’re building walls around the terrace cuz then they can’t overlook my balcony.  Let them sit on the street side if they’re going to sit!”

“I’m going to inform them about how things work around here,” declared my roommate.  “The area between their front door and yours is where you guys sit and grill and eat and talk.  That’s yours.  If they want to sit out front, they have to be the ones to make tea call everyone over like Gül would do.  Otherwise, if they’re just going to be loud and obnoxious, or not call us for tea, they have to go out back.  We have a system here!”

We all laughed.  New neighbours are such an unknown.

Hoca’s wife got a little sparkle in her eye.  “Did you hear that your Teyze there scratched our car?”  I cracked up and looked over at my roommate, who was covering her face in half-pretend shame.  

“She told me!  Good thing you guys are so merciful!”

My roommate moaned.  “Oh, I felt so bad!  How many hundreds of times have I pulled into that spot...”

“It was just a little paint.  You can’t even see it.  These things happen.  Hacı gets scratches on it all the time when he goes up to the orchard.  Driving through all those trees, you know.”  She leaned forward conspiratorially.  “Once, though, someone scratched it on purpose.  We had just bought the car - it was brand new.  And we came home and someone had taken a coin and --” she made the motion of dragging a coin down the length of the car.  

We gasped.  “Noooo!” I cried.

“Yes.  Yes.  And we knew who it was, too.  They were so jealous of our new car.  I told the story of what happened with them there, too, there in the middle of a whole group of people.  Their face went all red.  But I never said anything.  Just let them feel the shame.”

“That’s terrible,” my roommate commented.  “People should be happy for each other when they get something new.”

“Like when you got your new roof,” she motioned towards our house.  “I’d look up at it and smile.  I felt like I’d gotten a new roof.  Jealousy is a terrible thing.”

Just as we were getting down to the syrupy blackness at the bottom of our cups, The Hoca came back from the mosque.

Allah kabul etsin,” Hoca’s Wife said to him.

We repeated the greeting.  “May God accept your prayers.”

He put his hand on his chest.  “Thank you.”  He hung his coat on the back of a dining room chair and picked up the thermos of hot water.  “Still hot?” he asked.

“Yes, yes.  Are you going to make your drink?” she asked.  “He doesn’t like Nescafe.”

He disappeared into the kitchen with the pot of water and returned a minute later stirring a cup of neon green liquid.  

“What is that?” I asked, intrigued.  

“Here, smell it.”  He wafted it in front of my roommate’s nose.

“Whoa, that’s powerful!” she exclaimed.

My turn.  I took a whiff and nearly choked.  “Like menthol!  Wow, that’s strong.” 

“Like drinking mentholatum!” Hoca’s Wife said with a laugh.  “Do you want to try it?”

“No, thanks.  Afiyet olsun.  You enjoy it.”

He settled into his armchair with his green potion and changed the channel to one with Qu’ran verses in Arabic script superimposed over a picture of the Great Mosque in Mecca.  I could just make out the quiet drone of the hoca (the one on TV, not the one in the armchair) doing the recitation.

“Speaking of mentholatum...” I began.  My roommate smiled.  “The other day we were laughing because she told me she had been stuffy in the night and had gotten up and rubbed mentholatum on her nose and it instantly made her miss her mother.”

My roommate nodded enthusiastically.  “It was like I was suddenly a child again, and I was sick and needed my mom.  Funny how powerful smells are.”

“She made me smell the jar, too, and as soon as I did, I could see the cloth diapers my mom used to put on my chest when she put that stuff on me.”  I smiled at the memory.

“We did that, too!” Hoca exclaimed.  “Cleared you right up.”  He took a deep drink of his minty concoction.  Hammering from next door filled the silence.  “So, they’re working hard over there, eh?”

“I hope they do the same kind of siding on the house as the people on the other side of them did,” said my roommate.  “It looks ridiculous with half the house one colour and half another colour.  So much for us looking like a complex.”

“Yeah, if they’re going to break the rules anyway they might as well make it match.”  Hoca’s wife pursed her lips.  “I was so mad when Ms. Show-Off over there started everything with those ridiculous big columns and her glass balconies.  As if she’s the only one around here with money.  We all have money - but a good Muslim doesn’t use it to try to make their neighbours feel less important.  If you’re going to be rich, be rich in your soul.”

We both stifled giggles.  Hoca’s Wife is known for her disdain for the neighbour who started the whole “siding and insulation” trend.  The fact that it’s illegal to change the appearance or structure of a house in a co-op like this one didn’t stop her - or eight other homeowners after her - from completely changing the look of half the complex.  And Hoca’s Wife has yet to forgive her for her ostentatious ways.

“She invited me for breakfast once.  I said, ‘No, thank you.  I’ll drink tea on your porch but that’s all.  What business do I have in a showy house?”

My jaw dropped.  “You didn’t!”

“I did!” she said with a proud nod.

“She did,” repeated the Hoca, shaking his head and laughing his quiet laugh.

“Well, no one else was saying anything.  Someone needed to!  But you,” she pointed at my roommate, “You’re the assistant manager now - you can get out there and stop them all!”

A guffaw.  “Right, because they’re going to listen to the foreign lady!  I didn’t even want the job.  They just said, ‘You’re it,’ and I said, ‘No way,’ and they said, “Yep, it’s decided,’ and that was that.  YOU should’ve been at that meeting!  I would’ve nominated you!  Then you could tell them all what to do!”

Hoca’s Wife laughed, her eyes almost disappearing above her round cheeks.

My roommate continued.  “Instead, we ended up with Umut, and he doesn’t even live here.  What’s the point of a manager who doesn’t live here?  So everyone just builds whatever they want.”

“I still say we need a camera system,” the Hoca piped up.  “See who’s coming and going.”  

“Yeah, good luck getting everyone to agree to pay for that!” scoffed my roommate.  “Besides, the equipment would have to go in the gazebo, and then where would what’s-her-name’s roosters sit?”  

Tövbe, tövbe,” Hoca’s Wife said, clucking her tongue.  “These people and their birds....”

“Anyway, what I really miss is having the gardener here - Mehmet Abi always saw everyone coming and going, and he knew who lived here and who didn’t.”

“Did you see we have a new gardener now?” Hoca asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Except he doesn’t live here and doesn’t speak Turkish.”

“She’s getting pretty good at sign language and Arabic,” my roommate laughed.

“Yup.  I just learned the Arabic word for ladder - pardivan, or something like that.  Almost like merdiven - that’s how I knew what he meant.”

“He’s Syrian, right?” asked Hoca.  “I haven’t actually talked to him myself.”

“Yeah, Syrian,” I said.  “Seven kids....”

“I keep thinking I should take him out tea or something,” said Hoca’s Wife, looking serious.  “We know what it’s like to be foreigners and not know anyone.  You here, us in Germany.  I should take him tea...”

“I took him Nescafe last week,” I said.  “Him and his son.  He’s like twelve, and he speaks a bit of Turkish.  So they must’ve been here at least a little while.”

“So many new people moving in now, especially over in that corner.  Don’t know who anyone is anymore.”  Hoca’s Wife shook her head.  “A person needs neighbours, needs to know they can count on them.  I might get too sick to go out someday....  Who will come check on me?  I like to be able to look up and see when your curtains have opened and closed so I know you’re home.  Makes me feel better.  I hope these new people are good people...”

“Do you know where they’re from?” I asked.  

“Afyon,” said the Hoca.  

My roommate elbowed me with a knowing smile.  “I love Afyon!” I exclaimed.  “Maybe they can bring me some of that clotted cream Turkish delight...”

“She buys it in the bus station every time she passes through.” 

“It’s so good!  With little chocolate chips on the outside...Mmmm...”  I smiled just thinking about it.  

“Maybe they can find you an Afyonlu groom,” Hoca’s wife wiggled her eyebrows.  

“Yeah, we’ll see,” I laughed.  Not likely.

Hoca picked up his empty glass and started towards the kitchen.  

“Well,” my roommate glanced at the clock.  “We should get going.”

Hoca turned around.  “No, stay!  Please, stay for supper!”

“Actually, we’re invited to someone’s house for supper - that’s why we need to go.”  I made an apologetic face.  We picked up our empty coffee cups and put them on the silver tray on the table.

“Ooh, busy social life,” laughed Hoca’s wife, rising laboriously from her chair and reaching for our coats.  

Hoca emerged from the kitchen.  “Take these with you, then.”  He held out a napkin.  

Lokum!” I laughed with delight as I took the coconut covered Turkish delight from his hand.  It was cold from being in the fridge.  “It’s not from Afyon, but....”

“Thank you so, so much.”  I beamed at him and he beamed back in his humble, grandfatherly way.

We kissed her cheeks and nodded our heads at him as we made our way out the front door.  

Hoca’s Wife peeked out at the house opposite hers, big craters where the doors and windows used to be, dust drifting down from where the workmen were taking advantage of the break in the rain to carry on with their drilling.  “We’ll see, won’t we?  We’ll see....”